Baroness Goldie (Con)
My Lords, I begin by quoting my immediate predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, who said that this has been an excellent debate. He is absolutely correct—we have heard many thought-provoking contributions. What has left a lasting impression on me from this afternoon’s proceedings is the many impassioned speeches made on behalf of our Armed Forces. I thank your Lordships for that warmth and affection, and for the cross-party support of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, who opened for the Opposition, of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, and from the Cross Benches. That attitude and those contributions reflect the deep and abiding affection and support that our service men and women, veterans and the broader service community enjoy in this House and beyond.
Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, said, we should also remember that a tremendous contribution has been made over decades by our Commonwealth forces and veterans. Bringing it right up to date, my noble friend Lord Trenchard rightly reminded us of the role of our reservists in Operation Rescript, so there is much of which we can be very proud and certainly much for which we are very grateful. In turn, this mirrors the desire of your Lordships to make certain that this Bill can deliver measures that have a profound and far-reaching benefit to those who guard and shield the nation.
As the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, said, support for this Bill is strong and widespread. I appreciate the interest shown and the questions about certain measures and wider issues. I will address as many of your Lordships’ concerns as I can in the time available.
I was interested in the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal. One was perhaps predictable, because her assiduous work on behalf of war widows is, rightly, widely respected and acknowledged. Her plea for war widows, for whom she so tirelessly advocates, is heard. I can say that there is a desire to find a solution and all avenues are currently being explored; I use the word “currently” advisedly. I hope it will be possible to report further on that in the not- too-distant future.
The noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, also asked about overturning decisions of the Service Complaints Ombudsman. That ombudsman is of course independent but, as with other ombudsmen and ombudswomen, their recommendations are taken seriously but are not in themselves binding. However, I was interested to hear the noble Baroness’s contribution.
I also want to deal with one or two important points made by the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, which I noted down. In character, the noble Lord raised a multiplicity of thought-provoking and important issues, and I will look at Hansard and endeavour to respond to him. He referred to the Gurkha hunger strike, which I am pleased to say has now come to an end. My colleague the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, and the Defence Secretary, will meet Gurkha welfare groups shortly to discuss all welfare concerns. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, was also concerned about that.
I was not surprised to find that a lot of the discussion this afternoon concerned the covenant. There was widespread acknowledgement that placing it in legislation is good news; indeed, my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern rightly identified the important message that this sends to our Armed Forces, as did the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt. However, I certainly noted the concerns articulated by a number of noble Lords, not least the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith.
In response to the specific point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever and my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern on why the legislation will not apply to central government, I would say that government is held to account by Parliament and the purpose of the covenant duty is to raise awareness among providers of these public services of how service life can disadvantage the Armed Forces community in accessing these key public services. The MoD is fully aware of issues that impact the Armed Forces community, and we work with other departments and organisations across not just government but the United Kingdom to raise awareness, to access concerns—as best we can—and to help facilitate the resolution of problems. The MoD and central government more widely are already held to account in the delivery of the covenant by the statutory requirement to report progress against the covenant annually to Parliament. That will remain a legal obligation. I realise that that will not satisfy all noble Lords, but I shall anticipate with interest how your Lordships who are concerned about the omission of Governments—indeed, I think it was my noble friend Lord Astor who specifically mentioned the Scottish Government—explore and broaden out these genuine issues.
As in the other place, a number of noble Lords have argued that the scope of duty for the covenant is too narrow and that it should be broadened beyond housing, healthcare and education. We have chosen the scope of the duty carefully and in consultation with the Armed Forces community because we know that these issues will make the greatest improvements to family life. Indeed, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lancaster for recognising that. Significantly, of course, the Bill contains provisions for us to expand the scope into other areas through secondary legislation at a later date. I was asked for an assurance that this will be reviewed regularly. I am happy to give that assurance: the scope of the provision will be reviewed regularly. This is not the end of our legislative effort; it is the beginning.
A number of noble Lords, not least the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and a number of others, claim that the new legal duty is not strong enough. They are concerned that creating a legal duty “to pay due regard” to the principles does not go far enough. I know there has been talk in the other place from the Opposition Benches of needing to set “measurable national standards”. I think our challenge throughout this has been one of striking a balance. On the one hand we wanted to ensure delivery against the covenant principles, but on the other we wanted to avoid the sort of prescriptive approach that puts bureaucratic barriers in the way of practical delivery. Your Lordships will understand that when we are dealing with constituted local authorities which are entitled to a degree of government autonomy to make their own democratic decisions about what they wish to do, and with devolved Governments who have legislative competence to deal with delivery of these policy areas, we have to be very careful that we are not setting down a prescriptive approach which could be provocative, inimical and, in that respect, fairly unhelpful. I assure your Lordships that public bodies were consulted extensively, and our decision also reflects the diverse nature of public services across the country, but the Government will monitor responses and we are obliged, as I said earlier, to submit an annual report on the covenant to Parliament.
Predictably, the issue of the service justice system invited significant and extensive comment. I was pleased to hear noble Lords refer to the important reviews of the service justice system. I, too, have considered the reviews of His Honour Shaun Lyons and Professor Sir Jon Murphy, and it is their recommendations that underpin the improvements to the service justice system that we are taking forward in the Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, with his considerable experience in this field, raised this issue. He sought a further explanation about why the Government were adopting the particular course they have chosen. That was, to some extent, echoed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd. As I said at the beginning of this debate, while we accept the need to improve the decision-making process in relation to concurrent jurisdiction, we do not believe that the introduction of an Attorney-General consent function is the best way to achieve it, because Attorney-General consent arises at the end of the investigatory process, when key decisions on jurisdiction have already been made. I find it hard to see what the attorney adds if he or she is endorsing decisions already made. If the attorney were to disagree with those earlier decisions and veto a case being tried in the service justice system, there is no easy way to transfer that case to the civilian system. This could have the undesired effect of making it difficult or impossible to prosecute the case in either system; I think we all need to reflect upon this. The Government believe they have opted for a more pragmatic approach. As I said earlier, Clause 7 ensures that decisions on jurisdiction are left to the independent service justice and UK civilian prosecutors using guidance they have agreed between themselves. I do not consider that politicians should meddle in that. It is the case that the civilian prosecutors will have the final say as to within which jurisdiction the matter will be tried if there were disagreements.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, raised three significant points to which I listened with interest: first, should Parliament approve the prosecutor’s protocol and, secondly, in the choice of jurisdiction, should there be a right of appeal? He also suggested that it must be an error that this applies only in the United Kingdom. The Government seek to go with the grain of existing non-statutory arrangements. There is an existing non-statutory protocol between service and civilian prosecutors, and putting it on a statutory basis will bring clarity and transparency. On the specific points the noble and learned Lord raised, I suggest that there is no need for parliamentary approval for this type of protocol because this follows the precedent for the statutory Code for Crown Prosecutors, and that is not subject to that type of approval. On the second point, the Government see these as decisions for prosecutors. They are not subject to appeal at present; we are not looking to change that. On the third point, no, it is not a drafting error that it applies only to the United Kingdom. The purpose of this provision is to guide how civilian and service authorities within the United Kingdom manage these matters. Overseas matters are different—not least that they are often governed by a status of forces agreement.
I have endeavoured to explain why the Government have not just pulled this out of the air. Careful thought has been given to these proposals. I think it is worth reminding ourselves that the current situation was established by the Armed Forces Act 2006; that is the legislation that Parliament approved back then. I appreciate that that was under a Government of a different hue but, none the less, Parliament approved it and established jurisdictional concurrency by allowing murder, manslaughter and rape in the UK to be tried as service offences. It is that legal principle that the Bill supports, and that is why it is drafted as it is.
A number of your Lordships raised the comparative statistics on conviction rates between the service justice system and the civilian criminal justice system. I have to say—and I have looked at this—that I do not think it is possible to make a meaningful statistical or data comparison between the service and civilian justice systems. The service justice system review makes it clear that it is not possible to make accurate comparisons of outcomes in the systems as the relatively low number of cases and the small database in the service justice system mean that variances have a disproportionate effect on percentage values, which can subsequently lead to false conclusions.
A number of your Lordships referred to the House of Commons Select Committee report, which the MoD is currently considering; we shall publish our response shortly. On some of the criticisms which were levelled by your Lordships about the efficacy of the service justice system dealing with rape and serious sexual offences, we are confident that the service justice system provides an effective and fair system of justice for the men and women in the UK’s Armed Forces. It is interesting to note that the forces themselves do not report a lack of confidence in the system. The latest continuous attitude survey showed that 64% of the service population thought that the service justice system was fair, which compares with around 69% of the civilian population who think that the criminal justice system is fair. I am merely offering to your Lordships some basis for the approach which the Government have chosen.
A number of your Lordships raised the very important matter of mental health and mental health support: the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, spoke movingly about this, and the noble Lord, Lord Hay of Ballyore, referred to it, as did my noble friend Lord Balfe. It is correct that as our service personnel return home from testing operations, there is little doubt that in future years, sadly, an increasing number of veterans may suffer from mental health issues.
The MoD is committed to the mental health and well-being of our Armed Forces personnel and recognises that service life can cause stress. All Armed Forces personnel are supported by dedicated medical services, including mental health support. The MoD works with the single services, the Defence Medical Services and other stakeholders to promote mental fitness, prevent ill-health and try to reduce stigma. A lot of work has been done in that respect, of which I think many of your Lordships are aware.
I emphasise that an online mental health fundamentals course is available to all Armed Forces personnel, and since 2021 an annual mental health briefing is mandatory for all Armed Forces personnel. The MoD provides a 24-hour mental health helpline for Armed Forces personnel and their families, delivered by Combat Stress. That has been one of the most important developments in recent years. Togetherall allows Armed Forces personnel access to its 24-hour staffed digital forum and the Samaritans delivers bespoke workplace training and a peer support pocket guide providing guidance on how to talk to and support colleagues struggling to cope with mental health.
I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, who sought information about resource. From the information I have available, in 2020-2021, NHS England provided £16.5 million for veteran-specific mental health services, which increased to £17.8 million for 2021-22. In addition, the Government are also accelerating a new NHS England high-intensity mental health service for veterans who have acute mental health needs and are in crisis.
I refer to yesterday’s announcement that additional funding will be allocated to a range of projects that will increase capacity in mental health charities. There will be a £5 million boost to help increase the user-friendliness and accessibility of services and better signposting of veterans to the range of services available. I hope that that reassures your Lordships that this is an area in which we are determined to do our very best and that we endeavour to support our veterans in every way we can.
In the time remaining I will address specific points that were raised. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, is not with us. He explained to me that an urgent domestic matter has commanded his attention, requiring him to leave early, and I thank him for his courtesy. He raised important points, and, although he is not here, I will address them because they concern the courts martial.
His honour Shaun Lyons in the service justice system review concluded that there remained the need for a separate service justice system. The court martial system largely follows the Crown Court procedure, and the Bill takes the court martial system closer to that civilian system. While it is true that the Bill retains the possibility of 2:1 majorities, the intention is that three-member panels will deal only with less serious offending, and serious offending will be dealt with by six-member panels. His honour Shaun Lyons considered but rejected the possibility of voting being announced; voting is not currently published.
My noble friend Lord Lancaster raised the fact that the Armed Forces Act 2006 no longer applies to Gibraltar. I am aware that this is an issue which my noble friend dealt with extensively when a Minister in the Ministry of Defence. While it is true that the 2006 Act no longer extends to Gibraltar, the Bill contains an important provision on Gibraltar. Clause 19 confirms that Gibraltar legislation can apply the Armed Forces Act 2006, which means that Gibraltar can make provision so that the Royal Gibraltar Regiment can make use of the UK service justice system.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, raised the important and interesting issue of what I would describe as a statutory spring clean: could we make future Armed Forces Bills more straightforward, easier to read and to understand? As regards spring cleaning, that is a kind of floor-to-ceiling job with the curtains included as well, so I undertake to have a meeting with the noble and gallant Lord to discuss those issues further.
The noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, asked whether we have figures for interpreters returning to this country. During Operation Pitting, between 15 and 29 August up to 5,000 Afghan locally employed staff and families were relocated under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy. Prior to Operation Pitting and between 22 June and 14 August, a further 2,000 were relocated, and in the last six weeks 7,000 locally employed staff and families were evacuated in total. These are the figures I have at the moment. Obviously, they may change on a day-to-day basis, but we have all been aware of the noble Lord’s herculean efforts to keep this matter at the forefront of the attention of government and the British public, and I pay tribute to him for those efforts.
My noble friend Lord Lancaster and the noble Lords, Lord Dannatt and Lord Bilimoria, raised the matter of visa settlement fees. We recognise that settlement fees may place a financial burden on some serving personnel wishing to remain in the UK. The Defence Secretary has met with the Home Secretary to consider how we could offer greater flexibility in the future. As was indicated, a public consultation was launched on 26 May 2021, which closed on 7 July. We are currently analysing the feedback from that consultation and we shall respond in due course.
My noble friend Lord Lexden raised the very important matter of Clause 18, and I am grateful to him for mentioning the significance of that clause. He rightly mentioned Professor Johnson and the noble Lord, Lord Cashman. I wish to use this opportunity to pay tribute to their incredible efforts to bring Clause 18 to fruition, and I think the Chamber would wish to acquiesce in these sentiments.
Finally, an interesting contribution, if slightly not in the mainstream, came from the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. She referred to “child soldiers”, which is a term that few of us in this Chamber recognise—it is certainly not one that the Armed Forces recognise. We have a very healthy cadet programme where young people, on their own admission, have marvellous opportunities and thoroughly enjoy the experience, and that seems to be a very positive initiative in this country.
The Armed Forces covenant covers those who have been in regular service. It applies to all service personnel and veterans, and a veteran is a person with at least one day’s service. On the noble Baroness’s specific question about export licences, I refer her to the Department for International Trade, because that is its responsibility.
In conclusion, I thank everyone for their valued contributions. If my memory serves well, back in February I said to this House during the debate on the Armed Forces Act (Continuation) Order that I anticipated an interesting and lively debate on this Bill. In that regard, I am certain that none of us has been disappointed. I have enjoyed the debate and found it stimulating. I look forward to the detailed scrutiny we shall give the Bill in Committee, and I commend it to the House.